For eight years, George Bush’s presidency infected the oil industry’s oversight agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), with a septic culture of corruption from which it has yet to recover. Persons in the White House with close ties to the oil industry encouraged agency personnel to engineer weakened safeguards that directly contributed to the Gulf catastrophe.
The absence of an acoustical regulator – a remotely triggered dead man’s switch that might have closed off BP’s gushing pipe at its sea floor wellhead when the manual switch failed — was directly attributable to industry pandering by the Bush White House. Acoustic switches are required by law for all offshore rigs off Brazil and in Norway’s North Sea operations. In fact, BP uses the device voluntarily in Britain’s North Sea and elsewhere in the world as do other major players like Holland’s Shell and France’s Total. In 2000, the Minerals Management Service, while weighing a comprehensive rulemaking for drilling safety, deemed the acoustic mechanism “essential” and proposed to mandate the mechanism on all Gulf rigs.
Between January and March of 2001, it was reported that incoming Vice President Dick Cheney conducted secret meetings with over 100 oil industry officials allowing them to draft a wish list of industry demands to be implemented by the administration. Cheney also used that time to re-staff the MMS with persons from the oil industry. In 2003, the newly-reconstituted MMS recommended the removal of the proposed requirement for acoustic switches. The agency’s 2003 study concluded that “acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.”
As we mentioned in another section of this issue, the acoustic trigger costs about $500,000. Estimated costs of the oil spill to Gulf Coast residents have already been projected to exceed $20 billion. President Bush’s 2005 energy bill officially dropped the requirement for the acoustic switch off devices, explaining that the industry’s existing practices are “failsafe.”
Clearly, MMS has failed to do its job and folks in the Gulf Coast states are paying a heavy price for that agency’s sorry performance. A 2009 investigation of the Minerals Management Service found that agency officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” Three reports by the Inspector General describe an open bazaar of payoffs, bribes and kickbacks spiced with scenes of female employees providing sexual favors to industry big wigs who in turn rewarded government workers with illegal contracts.
Industry lobbyists underwrote lavish parties and showered agency employees with illegal gifts, and lucrative personal contracts and treated them to regular golf, ski, and paintball outings, trips to rock concerts and professional sports events. The Inspector General characterized this orgy of wheeling and dealing as “a culture of ethical failure” that cost taxpayers millions in royalty fees and produced reams of bad science to justify unregulated deep water drilling in the Gulf.
The Inspector General reported with some astonishment that officials at MMS, when confronted with the laundry list of bribery, public theft and sexual and financial favors to and from industry, “showed no remorse.” BP failed to install a deep hole shut off valve – another fail-safe that might have averted the spill. It’s being reported that BP’s willingness to violate the law by drilling to depths of 22,000-25,000 feet, instead of the 18,000 feet maximum depth allowed by its permit, may have contributed to this catastrophe.
Nobody familiar with Washington politics should have been surprised to learn that Halliburton is one of the primary villains in this disaster. Halliburton had a lucrative contract that gives it legal exposure for what happened on April 20th. The blowout occurred shortly after Halliburton completed an operation to reinforce drilling hole casing with concrete slurry. This is a sensitive process that, according to government experts, can trigger catastrophic blowouts if not performed correctly. According to MMS, 18 of 39 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico since 1996 were attributed to poor workmanship injecting cement around the metal pipe. It should be noted that Halliburton is currently under investigation by the Australian government for a massive blowout in the Timor Sea in 2005 caused by its faulty application of concrete casing.
The Obama Administration has assigned nearly 2,000 federal personnel from the Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, EPA, NOAA and Department of Interior to deal with the massive spill – an impressive response. Still, the current White House is not totally without fault. The government should, for example, be requiring a far greater deployment of absorbent booms. But the real culprit in this villainy is a negligent industry and poor oversight by an agency corrupted by eight years of grotesque subservience to Big Oil.
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